Traveling Medicine Show
From Dead Media Archive
Medicine Shows, popular primarily between 1850 and 1930 in the United States, were traveling groups that put on performances and entertainment acts interspersed with sales pitches peddling miracle cures, elixirs and other various products of a dubious nature. The traveling medicine show has close links to other trends at the time in America, including the patent-medicine industry and both traveling and static forms of staged entertainment. As a result, the traveling medicine show stands as a truly unique, American practice that existed only for a brief time in history, though whose legacy and influences can be traced through today in a variety of fields, including medicine, popular entertainment, and marketing.
How much is your health worth, Ladies and Gentlemen? It's priceless, isn't it? Well, my friends, one half-dollar is all it takes to put you in the pink. That's right, Ladies and Gents, for fifty pennies, Nature's True Remedy will succeed where doctors have failed. Only Nature can heal and I have Nature right here in this little bottle. My secret formula, from God's own laboratory, the Earth itself, will cure rheumatism, cancer, diabetes, baldness, bad breath, and curvature of the spine. (Anderson 1)
The European Mountebank
The predecessor to the traveling American medicine man was the European mountebank, well known throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance for selling their medicinal wares at fairs, street corners, in market squares or wherever they could gather a crow of onlookers (McNamara 3). 17th century London, for example became, in scholar Ann Anderson's terms, "a hotbed of medical malpractice" and a home to many medical "quacks" (Anderson 9). Scholars acknowledge, however, that it was the Italian mountebanks of the 17th century that typify the European medicine men of this era (McNamara 5).
Every day, Venice's St Marks Square would be packed with half a dozen platforms where various mountebanks would try for the crowd's attention. Music could play and the showman would open up his trunks, displaying his medicinal wares for the audience, while he delivered a long presentation of half an hour or longer (5).
While the main goal of the European mountebank was to sell their miracle cures, they would utilize various forms of entertainment to attract the crowd. In Italy and France, mountebanks would often draw upon elements of Commedia dell Arte, a popular street theater art form of the time, to amuse the crowd as they pitched their products (6). In fact, the importance of performance in the mountebank's sale becomes quite clear through the various names that the people developed for them: “montimbanca, cantimbanca, or saltimbanca” would refer to the musical and acrobatic feats they performed on their platforms, or “ciarlatano (from ciarlare, to chatter)” the origin of the term "charlatan", which emphasized the verbosity of the mountebank and “ciurmatore (from the Latin carmen, or charm)” referencing their magical feats which the mountebank's displayed to lure in the public (Henke).
Colonial and Early America
While it is not definitively known by scholars when the European mountebank entered the colony, by the early 18th century we begin to see mentions of the presence of medical "quacks" in America (McNamara, 7-8). One of the first written mentions of the colonial medicine man occurs in William Smith's 1757 work The History of the Province of New York...to the Year M.DCC. XXXII. Smith notes that "Quacks abound like Locusts in Egypt and too may have recommended themselves to full Practice and profitable Subsistence. This is the less to be wondered at, as the Profession is under no Kind of Regulation...Any Man at his Pleasure sets up for Physician, Apothecary, and Chirurgeon" (Smith quoted in McNamara, 8).
The other reason we know about the growing presence of the medicine man in the colonies in the 18th century is the various pieces of legislation passed in response to their deceitful practices. In 1772 in New Jersey, an act regulating medicine in the colony included a piece aimed at the suppression of mountebanks, while in 1773 Connecticut passed the "Act for suppressing of Mountebanks" (McNamara 8). Overall, despite the official opposition, scholar Brooks McNamara argues that "the mountebank remained the delight of the crowd" throughout America (McNamara 10).
For most of the 19th century, the American mountebanks barely differed from the European ones. Performing in exotic costumes, the American medicine man of the 19th century would draw people in with feats of magic, hypnotism, ventriloquism or exhibitions of trick shootings (11). By the 1850s more local elements began to be integrated into the American mountebank show, including banjo music and blackface, both borrowed from minstrel shows.
The 1870s, however, represented a shift towards a more Americanized version of the mountebank. The patent medicine industry had begun to take hold of the medical field in America, producing cheap and convenient (although dubious) remedies for all manners of illnesses. This new powerful industry would come to sweep up the figure of the mountebank and transform it to suit their needs (11). In addition to their catalogs and advertisements, the patent medicine industry recruited the mountebank to bring the brand right to the people.
Consequently, the mountebank became a spokesperson and brand ambassador for the patent medicine industry. This new role, McNamara argues, meant that the mountebank had to alter their simple sales pitch into "a patent medicine extravaganza", complete with theater, dance, music and other forms of entertainment (16). In order to provide this "extravaganza", the American medicine men of the late 19th and early 20th centuries borrowed from countless entertainment forms of the day to appeal to the crowds (see Entertainment Influences and Traditions). Unlike their European and colonial predecessors, the American medicine men made amusement and performance, not simply exhibitions of medical feats, the core of their show.
Structure and Technique
The Art of the Sell
Medicine shows were performed to sell products and turn a profit, not sure cure the unsuspecting victims that bought their remedies. A show was about 45% entertainment, 45% spieling, and a paltry 10% was left for something resembling a “medicine”, cure, elixir, etc.; whether these had any efficacy at all is debatable. And since medicine played a very small part in the medicine shows, technique was paramount.
To become a proficient medicine showman, one had to first master spieling, which is in art including but not limited to: working the crowd, capturing them with your oratory, and manipulating them to the bitter end. The manipulation was used to shame, trick or coerce people into buying your product by whatever means necessary. A good medicine showman is constantly scanning his audience, and is cognizant of the general tone of the crowd. For instance, if the showman keeps track of who all have given money or purchased something so far, but there might be one lone soul who has continually resisted, so they would begin to single he or she out, saying things like “you don’t want to be the only stingy person in this crowd, now do you?” Or “won’t you be upset when you are the only person who doesn’t get to go home with this fine elixir?”
Another reason a showman needed to be aware of the general tone of the crowd was so he could time the progression of the show properly. The idea was to build anticipation, desire and curiosity for as long as possible until the audience would start to get restless. Usually a showman would have some sort of stunt he was building up to, whether that be a reveal of something shocking or amazing, or a demonstration of the product he was pushing. So the showman would entice the crowd increasingly until they could not stand it anymore, taunting them with the promise of being able to see something they wouldn’t believe. Whether or not the showman could deliver on his promise of showing the crowd something worthwhile was irrelevant. The money was collected throughout the show and during the buildup, and oftentimes once enough money had been raised, the showman would pretend to go backstage to get something, and then slip away leaving the crowd jilted. This is why medicine shows had to travel, because once a certain territory was worked over, or “burned up” as the showmen called it, the communities would become wise to the trickery of the shows and be unwilling to purchase any more remedies. So the show would move on to the next town, or the next state, and do it all over again (Stratton 29-37).
Ballyhoo: The Entertainment of the Show
Although the medicine show's primary purpose was to sell products and make money, the also provided entertainment to the rural masses. The performers' job was to pull in crowds and make them feel indebted to the show, increasing the likelihood for purchases. The medicine show utilized popular entertainment forms of the era, and created a variety show atmosphere, providing a breadth of entertainment interspersed with plugs for medicine and health products.
Although not as respected or high-brow as the shows of the large cities' theaters, the medicine shows provided pure fun and entertainment to large crowds throughout the country. It should always be kept in mind that medicine shows, unlike vaudeville or minstrelsy, were always intended to sell products. The entertainment was just the Ballyhoo: the way to attract a crowd and boost sales. For a list and description of the types of entertainment utilized by the medicine show, see Entertainment Influences and Tradition
Stages of the Show
(As aforementioned, medicine shows were a widespread phenomenon, and were performed by different people and organizations across the country, so no two were exactly alike. The following is just to illustrate how one type of standard show was conducted and give a general sense of how they were supposed to unfold.)
Stage 1- Draw in your audience
The assistants and laborers would start setting up the stage, preparing the props, and setting up lighting. In the meantime a performer, sometimes a banjo or guitar player would begin to play music and sing to attract people walking by. In an elaborate, large scale type of show held in a tent, the person or company putting on the show would advertise in the days and weeks before the show, so attracting the audience off the street was not necessary, but for many smaller shows that was the primary method of audience cultivation. So as passersby would stop to investigate, the medicine man would start some light spieling. He wouldn't announce the product yet, but he might start saying things like "I've come here today to make this a healthy and disease free community, please stick around and let yourself be healed."
Stage 2- Begin your Spiel
Once there were a decent number of people gathered round, the showman would really start his spiel. So formulaic it could be read off a script (which it sometimes was), the spiel could be described as a story integrated into a larger, show length speech. The stories were most always fabricated, and possibly based on a grain of truth. But the stories were key, because they would be the first mention of the “medicine” or remedy the showman was peddling. The following is an excerpt about the stories told by showmen from former showman Owen Stratton’s book: Medicine Man. “The tale about the Quaker remedies was a little more complicated than the one about the Mineral Water Salts. In it, Jim spoke of a Botanical Garden, the site of which was a little indefinite. Sometimes it was in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and on other times it was on the outskirts of Cincinnati. Wherever it was it was supervised by ‘Old Dr. Josiah Baker’, a Quaker botanist one hundred and forty years of age, as hale and hearty as the average man of forty. In his marvelous garden, Dr. Baker raised all the herbs, barks, leaves, gums and berries from which the magical remedies were made. The main remedy was Quaker Botanical Herbs, put up in three small cartons, contained in a larger box. By adding the contents of one carton to eight ounces of alcohol, whiskey or Gin in a quart Jar, and then filling the jar with water, the fortunate patient would have a quart of medicine.”(Stratton 35)
Stage 3- Bait and Switch followed by an Unceremonious End
Undoubtedly the most deceptive aspect of the show was that, a vast majority of the time, the remedy, or elixir, or salve, or piece of equipment was ineffective. When peddling something like an elixir, the medicine man didn’t have to worry about proving efficacy on the spot during the show. But when the product in question was something like an electric belt (an item commonly sold during medicine show days), the medicine man would promise the audience a demonstration of its power. Stringing them along in the hopes that they would finally get to see what the belt could do was how the held the crowd. They would pass the belts around and let audience members handle and examine them. People would buy belts throughout the show without ever seeing the demonstration. And when the time came for the big moment everyone had been waiting for, the medicine man would either flee the scene before the audience had time to realize he was gone, or neglect to actually give a legitimate demonstration.A caveat: if there was any sort of demonstration that seemed to verify that the product worked, it was almost always a pre-planned stunt involving a member of the medicine show team posing as an audience member. So then the show was over, leaving the crowd with plenty of the product, but no actual remedies; And leaving the medicine man with all their money and no shame (Stratton 35-51).
Entertainment Influences and Traditions
Early American museums were meant to be clean, family fun for a respectable crowd of people. Unlike museums of today, these were almost entirely privately owned ventures that housed a variety of interesting exhibits. When these fell out of favor and profitability, showmen of the day took it upon themselves to open their own museums, with the express purpose of appealing to a more base, low-class style of people. These Jacksonian institutions featured freak shows, exoticism, art, magic, wax figures, fossils, and much more. Unlike today's more 'high-class' context of museums, these were very much everyman places of enjoyment. (Anderson 49)
The history of the museum in America cannot be discussed without mention of America's finest entertainment provider, P.T. Barnum, whose American Museum located in New York City at the corner of Ann Street and Broadway housed several popular exhibits, including the first aquarium in the United States. Places like these led more high-society, types to create more state-sponsered and 'honorable' museums housing fine art, leading to the museum tradition we see today. (Anderson 50)
The link between these stationary museums and the traveling medicine show was the smaller versions known as Dime Museums. Dime museums were "designed specifically as stationary medicine shows" (Anderson 53). Often times placed in store-fronts in order to draw in visitors, these museums contained penny arcades, curio halls, and various legitimate and illegitimate 'artifacts' of history and the world. This was an early form of entertainment meant to draw in people in order to purchase a product wholly separate from the actually entertainment itself. This concept is what spurred the medicine show movement that reigned for over 50 years. (Anderson 52)
Already mentioned as the founder of the American Museum, P.T. Barnum is perhaps most associated with the circus, the traveling entertainment that provided thrills and attractions for non-city dwellers who were unaccustomed to the museums found only in large cities. Like these museums, circuses often provided a variety of attractions, not necessarily connected in any way. Performers, acrobats, illusionists were mixed in with stationary exhibits like those seen in the proprietary museums. (Anderson 54)
Circuses were based on the idea that rural townsfolk were underexposed to the world, and the circus was the medium through which they could experience exotic entertainment and ideas, a concept the medicine show would exploit to equal success. A major draw for the people were the exotic animals of the circus. "At the beginning of the nineteenth century the three primary types of traveling entertainment were the menagerie, the circus, and a combination of the two." (Eckly 2)
Wild West Shows
Similar to the circus, the wild west show contained a variety of acts and exploits, although centered around the idea of the American Cowboy and the Native American. While the circus has unknown and varied origins, the wild west show is clearly the domain and concept of one man, William F. (Buffalo Bill) Cody. Originally started from the tradition of exhibiting Native Americans, wild west shows came to valorize the American Cowboy, a conception that was losing practical application. (Anderson 58)
The wild west shows created an American folklore unto themselves, heroizing the Cowboy, exploiting the exoticism of Native Americans, and producing cheap thrills with gun-shows and animal exhibitions. Traveling medicine shows, besides taking the variety formula, also exploited this newfound American folklore in their entertainment, especially the mysticism surrounding Native Americans, which can be seen in the use of Indian Medicine Shows [see The Kickapoo Indian Show] (Anderson 61)
Perhaps the most direct influence on the traveling medicine show was the minstrel show, another purely American performance 'art' that dominated American culture in the mid 19th Century. Although a variety act that included both music and acting, the biggest marker of the minstrel show was the blackface characters, the most well-known being the 'Jim Crow' character (or caricature). These minstrel clowns, obviously racist by today's standards, were meant as a sort of reminder to white audiences of the inferiority, class-wise, of the African race, as well as just a source of silly, low-brow entertainment. It is important to note, however, that the shows were not deliberately attacking the African race. Rather, they simply saw the conception of the ignorant Negro as a valuable avenue into comedy. In fact, some minstrel groups were made up entirely of black members, still using blackface as it was the tradition of the show.
The minstrel shows usually had a host, who besides telling jokes of his own, introduced the various comedic sketches and musical numbers. Comedy and music were the main focuses of the minstrel show, and this carried over into the medicine show format. Comedy usually took the form of humorous monologues, or short sketches featuring two or three actors. The music was often times folk numbers that many of the audience members would be familiar with, creating a stronger bond with the audience.
The minstrel shows began to lose favor as the Civil War raged on in the late 19th Century. Slavery and the African population was a more loaded topic. However, there was still a desire for the type of variety entertainment minstrel shows provided, especially in the South and rural West. The medicine show took a lot of the traditions of the minstrel show that were no longer in the spotlight, and utilized them for its own purpose. (Anderson 74-82)
Much like minstrel shows were the form of entertainment in the middle of the 19th Century, the time from 1875-1925 "belonged to vaudeville" (Anderson 83). Next to the minstrel show, vaudeville provided more material and formats for the medicine show than any other popular form. Vaudeville, also a variety show, also established the conception of having a variety of entertainment styles with no need for connection or relation. You could show comedy routines, dances, and plays all together only tied together by a shared stage. Early vaudeville is most often seen as decedent from British music hall shows, providing a theatrical 'revue.'
Vaudeville is often seen as belonging to the city, and in many ways this is true. Large theaters and music halls in cities like New York and Boston were seen as the premier venues for all acts, especially vaudeville. However, the excess of performers and need for money forced many companies and individual acts to hit the road and tour the country, often times using the growing train network as means of transportation. This is where many of the medicine shows got their performers, aspiring vaudevillians looking to hone their craft and make some money. Future vaudeville and radio stars like Harry Houdini, Al Jolson, and Red Skelton got their starts on medicine shows stages. The medicine show also provided them with a variety of roles and helped teach the art of improvisation. Since the show traveled, their had to be constant changes to the acts and playing to particular towns. Many times, performers would have to have multiple talents and the ability to be incorporated into various acts, as the show needed. (Anderson 83-90)
Some of the more interesting additions made to the medicine show were the temperance and morality plays. Comedic sketches were always a part of the show, drawing directly from minstrelsy and vaudeville. However, as the temperance movement grew and Southern religious fervor stayed strong, medicine showmen realized they needed to tap into these movements in order to increase sales.
The temperance movement in America began in the early 19th Century, around 1820, mostly coming from religious groups. Sobriety started being seen as a pathway to God. The movement grew and grew over the years, and by the time medicine shows were gaining in numbers, large sections of the country were awash "blue laws" and general distrust of alcohol. The medicine shows would incorporate this sentiment into their acts and pitches, showing short plays that highlighted the dangers of drinking, or the strength of religion. This would later be incorporated into the pitch of the medicine, stating that it could serve as a replacement for these dangerous liquors. They were right in many ways, most clearly in that alcohol and other narcotics were a major ingredient in most patent medicines. The temperance movement was distrustful of alcoholic beverages, but medicines were not seen as an ail on mankind. Medicine showmen utilized this to great success in the later decades of the 19th Century. (Anderson 92-95)
Notable Medicine Shows and Showmen
The Kickapoo Indian Show
The Kickapoo Indian Medicine Show, produced by the Kickapoo Medicine Company is recognized by many scholars to be one of the most popular medicine shows of the late 19th and early 20th century (Schwarcz).
The Indian Medicine show idea, which would later be picked up by other medicine men of the day, drew its inspiration from Indian performances which had become popular over the years across America. By the 19th century, however, there was little trace of actual aboriginal culture to be found in Indian performances. Instead, Brooke McNamara notes, “Indians had been reduced by showmen to dime museum novelties and the performances developed by museum operators often concentrated on the most sanguinary aspects of Indian life” . For example, a show at Peale’s museum in 1827 introduced a group of Iroquois demonstrating “the manner in which they skulk and lay (sic) in ambush and the manner of scalping an enemy”, designed specifically to produce what McNamara calls “a pleasant tingle of fear” (McNamara 84-5).
This exoticized images of Indians portrayed in the Indian performances formed the basis for John “Doc” Healy and Charles “Texas Charlie” Bigelow’s Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company. Both Healy and Bigelow which were white Americans and had no connection to any actual Kickapoo Indians (Schwarcz). Their goal, like many other medicine men to follow, was to hijack the identity of the Kickapoo Indians in order to harness the widespread believe amongst Americans that the Indian was privy to a slew of natural medicinal secrets unknown to white men, and hence should be considered a “natural physician” and source of medical wisdom (McNamara 79).
Unlike other Indian medicine shows which featured white men parading in stereotypical Indian garb, The Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company took the idea of integrating 'real Indians' seriously, and by 1890, Healy and Bigelow claimed to have almost 800 aboriginals working with them, either making the medicine in their New Haven offices, or touring with the various traveling Kickapoo Medicine shows (85).
Kickapoo “camps” varied in sizes and level of extravagance. The standard camp was run by ten to twenty individuals and contained “half a dozen tepees, several tents used by the Indian agent, a twenty-foot-wide portable covered stage, and a few Gale’s Patent Beacon lights” (McNamara 88). In the winter, the Kickapoo would perform inside in halls and opera houses (88).
A Kickapoo show was generally made up of ten to twelve acts, interrupted by about three or four medicine pitches. All shows, however, opened with the same Indian Act entitled: “A Sight of a Life Time! A Group of Indian Men and Women in their Native Songs and Dances” (94). This demonstration was usually followed by Mr and Mrs. Charles Scott displaying fancy rifle shooting, Victor Laicelle performing tumbling and balancing, the Howard Sisters with singing and dancing and a ventriloquist, Henderson, the Man of Many Voices (94).
The Kickapoo Medicine showmen were known for touting a variety of Kickapoo Medicine Company products including the Kickapoo Indian salve for skin diseases and the Kickapoo Indian Worm killer, which the showman would display emerging from an audience members body (in actuality, a long string wound into a tight ball) (Schwarcz). The product the Kickapoo were most known for, however, was the Kickapoo Indian Sagwa, which they claimed would virtually kill everything (Schwarcz). They even had “Buffalo Bill” Cody (See Wild West Shows) endorse the Sagwa in their ads, with the label: “An Indian would as soon be without his horse, gun or blanket as without Sagwa” (Schwarz). Of course, this statement was completely inaccurate, as Healy and Bigelow had invented the entire idea themselves, with no real basis in Indian tradition(Schwarcz).
By the mid 1880s, tons of competing medicine shows appeared, many of whom claimed to be tied to the Kickapoo Indian Medicine company, but few who actually were. Scholars generally agree, however, that the Kickapoo Medicine shows, particularly as they featured "real Indians," were the truest example of the Indian Medicine shows, despite all imitations to follow (McNamara 95).
Hamlin's Wizard Oil
If the Kickapoo Indian Company represented the most successful of the Indian style medicine show, then The Wizard Company, producers of Hamlin’s Wizard Oil represented the epitome of the trend of “pious” medicine men. The movement towards “pious” performances emerged as a result of harsh backlash from the more conversative and religious communities of America (McNamara 64).
Influenced by Quaker medicine shows where medicine men would adopt the identity of a Quaker, relying on Quaker reputations of goodness and fairness, the Hamlin Wizard Oil medicine men were interested in cultivating a reputation of honesty and “uplifting entertainment” in order to better sell their products (McNamara 68).
The company was founded in the 1870s by John Hamlin, a former traveling magician, along with his brother Lysander. Wizard oil was a virtual cure-all: it could treat common rheumatic pains and sore muscle, cure pneumonia, cancer and hydrophobia. In addition to containing some bizarre elements: camphor, ammonia, chloroform, sassafras, cloves and turpentine, the Wizard Oil was frequently made up of 55 to 70 percent alcohol (65). While the Hamlins sent representatives to druggists with their other medications, Wizard Oil was generally sold only to spectators through musical and entertaining traveling medicine performances (66).
The majority of the Hamlin Wizard Oil performances were done outside, although sometimes they performed in opera houses (66). The medicine man would travel around in a special wagon covered in advertisements for “Wizard Oil” that also doubled as a small rolling stage with “built-in parlor organ and lockers under the seats for a week’s wroth of medicine” (66).
Unlike the Kickapoo, the Wizard Oil troupe was quite simple: just a driver, a lecturer and a vocal quartet that also played brass instruments (67). Overall, music was the most important element of the Wizard Oil show, and the showmen would hand out “songsters”, books of songs that contained illegitimate medical advice, all, of course, curable by Hamlin’s variety of products (67). Titles included “Listen to my Tale of Woe” and “the Old Red Cradle” (67).
Decorum and morality were the cornerstones of the Hamlin Wizard Oil show. As William Burt, a member of the troupe’s quartet said, they were “the last word in class, dignity and social distinction” (Burt quoted in McNamara 67). The costumes were an essential part of the demonstration of the distinction of the Wizard Oil salesmen, and became a trademark of the troupe; always in frock coats with fine trousers and a vest (67). To emphasize their piety and morality, the managers would volunteer in the church fairs of the towns they visited, and the Wizard Oil singers would help out in local church choirs (68).
Like the Kickapoo imitators, Hamlin Wizard Oil imitators attempted to ride on the coattails of the 'pious' Hamlins, producing other variations of similarly titled Wizard Oil shows using similar tactics.
Downfall of the Traveling Medicine Show
Early 19th Century America was resistant to new economic legislation, as the colonial conception of less government and states' rights was still going strong. The first attempt to regulate medicine on a federal level came in 1892, when a law stating a medicine must be up to a "professed standard" passed the Senate; however, the bill failed to pass the House. (Anderson 156)
A major reason for early bill failures at both the Federal and State level was combined efforts of the Proprietary Association and advertising industry. However, by 1905, the Proprietary Association began to divide into various factions. This led to the first piece of Federal legislation to be passed in 1906: The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. This bill stated that all addictive drugs be listed on the labels of food and medicine. Many patent medicine manufacturers actually saw this as a victory against a more strict bill, and listed all the laudanum, cocaine, opium, morphine, and alcohol on every medicine with no worry. (Anderson 157)
The patent medicine industry continued successfully in the early 20th Century until the 1930s brought new legislation and regulation. The most influential of these was the formation of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), two regulating bodies meant to curb false advertising and more honest labels. Other organizations that formed at this time that helped lead to the end of the patent medicine industry were the American Medical Association (AMA), American Pharmaceutical Association (APA), and Consumer's Research, a militant consumer advocacy group. (Anderson 158)
The final nail in the coffin came with the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938, that required proprietors to list all ingredients and reveal all relevant facts. This also led to regulating medical devices, a long-time medicine show staple. (Anderson 159)
Traveling medicine shows also grew out of favor due to the fact that they no longer became the primary source of entertainment for rural America. Neww technologies such as movies and radio extended beyond the cities to influence the rural areas. The first movie theaters opened in the early 20th Century in major US cities and quickly spread into rural towns and cities through train shows and later new theaters built. Medicine shows thrived upon the fact that small rural towns rarely saw outside entertainment, so movies provided strong competition for the attention of rural audiences.
The other encroaching medium that challenged the medicine show's dominance over rural entertainment was radio. Once again, entertainment was provided, this time for free (with advertising, of course), but directly into people's homes. Ironically, radio programs often took their formats directly from medicine show tradition, mixing entertainment, music, plays, directly into the advertising. (Anderson 159-161)
A Modern Medicine Man: Dr. Oz
The recent trend in popular culture of promoting pseudo science and health care as entertainment can be interpreted as a modern continuation or reincarnation of the medicine show and its essence. The health consultant, “Dr. Oz”, featured regularly on the Oprah Winfrey show has been criticized for peddling pseudoscience and trying to glamorize the practice of medicine. He is known for promoting a more holistic approach to health care. He recommends more natural, herbal type remedies and espouses his belief in working on the harmony between mind, body, and spirit as a path to better health. Critics have labeled him as an aspiring celebrity who is seeking fame instead of trying to maintain his credibility as a physician. Dr. Oz now has his own television program, and at the bottom of the show’s website, it clearly states: “This website is for informational and entertainment purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. (Dr.Oz.com)” That could be interpreted as odd considering the shows promotes itself as a health care and medical advice program. Similarly, in 2008 ABC began airing a show called “The Doctors” that operates under the same premise as Dr. Oz’s show. Apparently the ‘heath care as entertainment’ trend is popular enough to spawn tv programs, then competitor programs. Not so coincidentally, the primary physician featured on the show, Dr. Travis Stork, was once the star of ABC’s hit series “The Bachelor.” But Dr. Stork is charismatic and attractive, hence good entertainment, so it’s no surprise that the network wanted to capitalize on his fleeting popularity. He is the medicine man of the modern age; Instead of working for the Quaker Medicine Company, he works for ABC television (Stelter). People will always crave a miracle cure for their ills, so there will most likely always be remnants of the medicine show to enjoy.
Commercial Interruption: Early Marketing on The Medicine Show Stage
The traveling medicine show follows several traditions in Western thought. On one hand, it operates in the tradition of pseudoscience and the industry of unscientific medicine, while the staged entertainment, on the other hand, follows a tradition of performance art that was prevalent in the mid 19th Century. But these traditions only pertain to particular pieces of the medicine show formula, whereas the total concept of medicine shows themselves highlight a far more influential tradition: marketing and sales.
In many ways, marketing is anything that helps the sale of the product beyond the product itself. Everything from commercials, branding, promotions, and imagery and lifestyle can be considered tools of the marketer. The medicine showman's primary purpose was to sell product, not to entertain the crowd or help people with their ailments, though these were methods utilized by the medicine man. Medicine shows were not entertainment for entertainment's sake, nor were they doctors with the health of their patrons in mind. Modern marketing does many of the same things the medicine shows of the 19th Century did in order to sell product: entertain people, create interest/demand, and integrate entertainment with the product in order to generate a connection within the audience.
The traveling medicine show format and conception of marketing is seen all over today in modern advertisement. Television is perhaps the best example of this. Mae Noell, a medicine show performer, writes in her biography, "Modern TV has perpetuated the old format. Just as we did in the old days, TV gives free entertainment sandwiched between sales talks. The difference is that we sold medicine whereas TV sells everything" (Anderson 162). The conception of free entertainment inter-dispersed with sales pitches is very much alive today, and began in America with the traveling medicine.
Product placement is another way the traveling medicine show tradition exists today. Today companies pay broadcasters to integrate their product into a television program in order to create a seamless brand-entertainment experience. The traveling medicine show put its product as close to the entertainment as it could, limiting the audience's conception of a dichotomy between entertainment and selling. This was a masterstroke of marketing and revolutionary at the time, and the influence is clear in today's world. Infomercials are an example of this notion taken to the extreme as they dedicate entire programs to selling a product under the guise of 'entertainment'.
The medicine showman is many things. A doctor, an entertainer, but perhaps most totally, a marketer.
Traveling Medicine Show Glossary
A lexicon developed around the culture of traveling medicine show. Below is a selection of a few common terms used by medicine men, some of which are common in informal speech today.
Bally or Bally-Act: Ballyhoo or attraction used to draw a crowd (McNamara 207)
The Boozer: Licensed doctor with the show who could no longer practice traditionally due to being an alcoholic (Anderson 144)
Consultation Room: palor where patrons could meet with a 'doctor' one-on-one and receive diagnoses and prescriptions (Anderson 138)
Gill: Customer; sucker (McNamara 207)
(the)Give: The show, or spiel (Stratton)
Grifter: A concessionaire operating various games of change (McNamara 208)
Grinder: Medical 'lecturer' (McNamara 208)
Grind Joint: A 'museum' or other place where lectures are given continuously (McNamara 208)
Jamb: High-pressure tactics, form of illegitimate selling (McNamara 208)
Leary: Damaged Merchandise (McNamara 208)
Pitch: Sales talk to the crowd (McNamara 208)
Shill: Paid audience members who supported the pitchman's claims (Anderson 141)
Short Con: Brief, aggressive pitch or spiel (McNamara 208)
Spiel: A pitch (McNamara 208)
Squawker: Complaining customer (McNamara 208)
Tip: Prospects; a crowd; especially a small crowd (McNamara 209)
Trailer: One who trails a show selling refreshments, especially one who does not pay for the priilege (McNamara 209)
Turn the tip: to activate a crowd to buy (McNamara 209)
Anderson, Ann. Snake Oil, Hustlers, and Hambones: The American Medicine Show. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2000
Eckly, Wilton. The American Circus. Boston: G.K. Hall and Co., 1984.
Henke, Robert. The Italian Mountebank and The Commedia Dell'Arte. Theatre Survey v38. November '97
McNamara, Brooks. Step Right Up. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 1995.
Schwarcz, Joe. Travelling medicine shows not far away. Calgary Herald. Calgary, Alberta, Jan 18, 2001. p 20.
Stelter, Brian. “Grab the Remote, the Doctor’s in”. The New York Times, 2009.
Stratton, Owen. Medicine Man. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
Wagner, Paul and Steven Zeitlin. Free Show Tonight. http://www.folkstreams.net/film,68
The Dr Oz Show http://www.doctoroz.com/